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We Look at Education as Something Which Is Empowering, Something Contributing to the Society

After the third conference of the Critical Edge Alliance in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in September 2017, we had an interview with professor P.K. Shajahan, the Dean of Student Affairs at the Institute and one of the organizers of the Conference.

By Shreya Urvashi and Adrian Ortega Camara Lind

After the third conference of the Critical Edge Alliance in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in September 2017, we had an interview with professor P.K. Shajahan, the Dean of Student Affairs at the Institute and one of the organizers of the Conference. Professor Shajahan has been active in various important scientific endeavors, covering all from Communalistic studies and engagements, Conflict and Peace Processes, Minority Rights, to Social Innovation and People Centred Development.

Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) is one of the major universities in India. Known to be one of the best universities for social work and action in all of South-Asia, TISS also seeks to respond to the calls of society and its people making the University a problem-oriented institution.

We invited Prof. Shajahan to talk about the Institute and its educational model, as well as what he thinks about the Critical Edge Alliance.

Shreya and Adrian: Please give us an insight into the background for this year’s conference.

Shajahan: The idea when we came together as different university leaders to form this Critical Edge Alliance, was that it would be founded on the basis of three major ideas:

One is that the university should be considered as a dialogic space; the dialogic space in the sense that students have the potential to explore, but also that students have the opportunity to explore different ways of learning.

The second is that there are ways in which society is coming into contact with the university or the university coming in touch with the social realities, whereby the university engages with social realities in different ways, be it in the form of feeding it into the academic program or working with the community in bringing sustainable changes in the society. It could be done two ways: The university engages with society to learn, and to create opportunities for students to learn from the society, thereby making learning much more appropriate to the contextual realities of the world. Or otherwise, the university engages with field realities and make significant change; be it social transformation, economic change, policy changes or engaging with the governments and various other stakeholders.

And the third are the very important innovations which we have in our university system. Innovations in the sense that it is not traditional teaching-learning process. But instead, as different strategies which the university is using: innovative methodologies of teaching and learning, innovative methodologies of curriculum development, and innovative methodologies in societal engagements.

When we decided to hold this conference in TISS, we thought one of the strong areas in which TISS is working on is its real engagement with the society. So that is how the theme of University-Society Partnerships came about. And it has worked out really well in the sense that various member universities and non-member universities have presented and exchanged their different approaches to University-Society Engagements. 

Shreya: What was the most interesting element of the conference in your opinion?

Shajahan: For me, the student workshop was a very interesting process. We had done it in Roskilde University the previous year as well. But this time, we were able to look more at how student-led innovation could lead to forming a very important aspect of critical higher education. I also think that students have made a remarkable contribution in terms of defining what could be the basic premises of a curriculum development process as well as what could be the opportunities lying in student-initiated innovations, considering the learning philosophies of each university, be it Roskilde University with the problem-orientation and their learning-model or TISS with people centered development approach. Various approaches are being tried out by different universities.

Also, what made the student workshop the most important aspect of the conference was that it resulted in the final plenary. Don’t you think that it is exciting to have a final plenary being given by the students? That’s something I found extremely interesting.

And the second dimension which I found very useful was the collaboration meeting across faculty members from different partner universities in the alliance. We tried to explore how to strengthen the relationship between or across different partner universities. Not only in terms of research collaboration, teaching exchanges and things like that, but in terms of a sustained relationship to promote critical higher education.

There are a lot of exchanges happening across universities. But what is more important in today’s world is to look at how different universities work around critical higher education. And to look at how we can promote each other and learn from each other. The collaboration workshop actually gave a lot of insight into how we can take the ideas of Critical Edge Alliance further, and explored various dimensions, be it student exchanges, joint teaching programs, research collaborations or the other things.

Shreya: How did you and TISS get involved in the establishment of the Critical Edge Alliance?

Shajahan: Well I think my joining this Critical Edge Alliance was because I have been collaborating with Roskilde University for almost seven years now. We have been hearing about the learning methodologies of both these universities.

As we were working together on this collaboration between Roskilde University and TISS, there were already discussions happening with other university leaders, such as from The New School. They were already on board with forming some kind of alliance, bringing institutions together which have similarities in learning philosophies.  

I was invited to the conference, the first meeting in Morocco at Al Akhawayn University in 2015 to present the case of looking at critical higher education process through a different kind of a lens in a developing country context. We had all the university representatives presenting what their universities are about.

One of the experiment which we are doing here in TISS is the M-Ward project, where some of the participants of this years conference also had the opportunity to visit. We talked about how we engage with the societies, and how we can improve the conditions there.

The students, the faculty members, the teachers and the staff members all came together to engage with this community, the M-Ward, to understand the realities there and work out a plan for future interventions. So we found resonance across different universities about what we are doing in this project.

Adrian: What is TISS like, as a university? How, and why is it different from other universities in India?

Shajahan: We do not need to discuss the history of TISS, but at the same time we need to know how we came to be an institution with a difference.

In the past, we had large issues of labor being severely affected in the cities. Large number of migrants used to come from other parts of the country to look for employment in the city after losing their jobs. And city health condition was also additionally poor, a lot of interventions need to be done with those.  

This was just one example of some critical issues which we found at that particular time and had to respond to. Today many people are effectively working with some of these marginalities across the globe, particularly in the US, in Chicago University.

They came and set up a social work program in this country. So social work program became a flagship program at TISS. It is a program where you can train people; in health interventions, livelihood programs, employment, or various other kinds of economic activities. You need to work with them, to have a trained group of people; and you need certain professional skills for that, and Social Work Program seems to be working along those lines even with other countries.

It’s not about creating graduates and imparting knowledge to them, so these graduates can serve the society, serve the capital, whatever their call might be.

From its roots, Tata Institute of Social Sciences has tried to respond to the social realities. That continues even today. On one side you continue to respond to social realities and on the other side you have these learnings from the field coming back to the institute in newer forms of programs. For example, we started the Disaster Management Program, and we developed a school of human ecology which offered clinical psychology and similar programs. And we also started a Social Work Program with mental health, focused within the School of Social Work.

We have been continually growing and responding to various realities. One of the responses is the M-Ward project. During the 75 years of existence of this institute, we realized that the immediate neighborhood in which the Institute is located in Mumbai, is also one of the poorest and most marginalized. That is what the M-Ward signifies. The M-Ward is an urban slum settlement where a lot of people have come from other parts of the city to live. These are people who are displaced by various development projects within the city, people who have come from other parts of the country, and people who are looking for jobs. In this ward, there is a very high maternal mortality rate, and malnutrition is prevalent. We thought that although we are celebrating the Institute’s 75 years of existence, it would be more appropriate if we spent our energy and time to plan a strategy to intervene in some of these issues.

We began surveying around 100,000 households and also went looking at different issues in education and health specific areas of work, which all needs to be followed up upon.

We have prepared a roadmap and we started working on this by involving students, faculty and everyone. We didn’t have money to do this. But we thought that we probably could approach some corporates with their corporate social responsibility. We kept on working even without funds for quite some years. Now we have got some amount of money, and there will be all other kinds of interventions on health and education. So that is one of the ways in which we have responded to an issue.

Adrian: What makes TISS different from other universities in India? We talked about the beginning of the university engaging with these issues. Are other universities not engaged in these social issues? Why are they not engaged on the same level?

Shajahan: As a student at a normal university, you are able to excel in relation to which kind of expert faculty you have at that particular university, and which kind of expert research programs you have. That could be the basis on which any university could become a world class university, or a university of high standards. And there are many universities in the country and across the globe with such high standards of education and academic rigor.

Why I would say TISS is a university of difference, is its self-recognition and ambition to be an institution or social entity with larger social responsibilities: It’s not about creating graduates and imparting knowledge to them, so these graduates can serve the society, serve the capital, whatever their call might be.

You cannot just think that you can just impart knowledge and give them degrees, and they will do whatever work they would. What we are trying to look at is the university as a dialogic space. You create that space and make sure that students are actually able to develop themselves and each other through engagement in society, in their classrooms, and on campus. The teaching process comes in the form of a learning action praxis: You learn by doing.

And one of the very important aspect of teaching-learning process is the fact that in every program in the Institute has avery significant field component into it. And I don’t think such component is there in many other universities. You may have certain programs like Social Work all over the country. All over the world, you have field work. But not essentially all programs have that field component, as they do here.

We are different in response to social realities, we are different in terms of how curricular programs are being organized, we are different in the base of hows student learn here in this Institute, and engages with the social realities.

Students here are inherently going to engage with society even though they don’t have a intention to do so. At our Institute, there are fieldwork and foundation courses. Foundation courses gives a broad background of what we are going to talk about in the next two years of their studies. Secondly through the fieldwork they actually engage with it. There is no other option.

In a lot of situations, students find all this as a space which they have got something to do. They find what they’ve believed they wanted to do. Before that they have not interacted with the larger society. For them coming to TISS is a life changer.

It is a kind of a life changing situation for studying in this institution and having understood the field realities which they’ve never come across. A selection of students come with a very clear idea.

Somebody would for example come from an extremely poor tribal background, seeing that the families in the communities there are living in livelihood insecurity. At the institute they would discover the possibilities that these development approaches can offer for the student to help their community. So there are certain students who come with a very clear idea. But also certain students come with without having any exposure. For them it’s a new encounter.

What they get is the ability to imagine the possibility of them to help transform certain systems. So all of these things areas become available for them to explore. So in a way the graduates coming out of this institute individually each one of them become a change maker.

Adrian: I’m a student of philosophy and History (from Roskilde University) my area is not so much with engagement and fieldwork and it’s more in an abstract way to radically engage with the world, society and its concepts. So we would like to ask, what do you think of the term critical? And what does it mean to be critical?

Shajahan: Well I think I would say that there are two ways in which we could look at critical. One is of course playing a critical role in societal processes or in education processes in whatever sector you are in.

Being a critic or being critical is also acknowledging the fact that you are an significant player. In the sense that you have a critical role to play in the social transformation or any change you want to bring.

For me, one dimension of being critical is this: Being significant, being important, being relevant. And the other side is more taking from a Paulo Freire’s idea about critical consciousness.

Students here are inherently going to engage with society even though they don’t have a intention to do so.

But overall, education needs to be critical, education needs to be a critically engaging process. You cannot take things as given, you need to have an engagement with that issue, you need to have a critical view of the issue. And you don’t agree to the status quo. Whatever is happening in the society you cannot assume that… “Okay well capitalism is going to happen so capitalist approaches are going to be there, so you need to create spaces within that.” That cannot be critical, you are just being consuming what is out there in terms of a given situation.

What you are trying to do, through a critical higher education is to create a kind of a sense of discomfort with what is not happening, be it issues of environment, be it issues of marginality in terms of poverty, be it in the issues of health inequalities which are existing. You cannot just assume that: “This is given, so let us try and see how we can manage.”

We don’t want students to become managers of situations. Students needs to be critically thinking, questioning. But not questioning just for the sake of questioning:  They should look at how do we deal with this. How do you deal with women from a tribal community who are daily struggling for making their ends meet. How do you make a change in their life situations? By ensuring that women in the community know about this act or this act, and ensure that they are able to claim that right from whatever responsibility holders. So you are creating minds that are critical. You are thinking that they also have a critical role to play.

You cannot think that economy can be developed by industrialization: If a large number of people are working in the agriculture sector. And that changes because working in this agriculture sector we can bring technological solutions. But where do the people go? So the people are also significant.

When you have a big dividend, you need to build on the demographic dividend, and not to train them to go abroad and work elsewhere. But you need to think that they are going to be significant players in the economic development, that they are going to be significant players in the social development. So unless and until you are able to work on health issues, we will not have a healthy young generation to contribute to the society.

Being critical is about posing significant challenges to oppressive systems and at the same time finding ways to strengthen and empower people and then help them solve all these different kinds of problems facing them and our society.

Shreya: Outside of TISS, especially in schools, even undergrad and most colleges, there is this tendency of passive learning: Lectures where the teacher speaks and the students is supposed to absorb. What role do you think TISS plays as a critical institution in this regard?

Shajahan: I think we still are having a passive learning approach at the lower levels of education in in India. This is predominantly used in many institutions. I believe that we still need to question and probably also challenge some of these situations and make significant changes. Higher education is a space where we can experiment with this, in a big way.

Higher education have more adult students, who will probably have little more kind of openness towards the outside. Particularly in Indian, the situation is that the families are playing a significant role in education: What programs they should study, how to study, which colleges to go, and things like that. But when you go to a higher education institution, you get a space which is a little more free. If we create that space in higher education, it becomes life-changing for many.

I think institutions like TISS can create that space, to create a space for students to explore their potentials, explore their concerns, and work on their concerns.

When a higher education institution creates space, it becomes possible for the students who come from a kind of a passive learning system.

Quite often what happens is that many professional degrees, even a large number of engineering graduates which come to this Institute, they come from that kind of a system where the knowledge is coming from above. So you have an expert knowledge, which is a superior knowledge. Here when they come they realize that: “Well you know, my knowledge is probably superior but I don’t think that’s the only superior knowledge.” Prioritizing and privileging certain kinds of education is a space which you get here. On the other side critical education also provides something which there is a danger in; just being critical about everything happening around and not having supplemented with action or engagement.

“Well, neoliberalism is bad.” So what do you do with it? Now you can just keep on discussing about it and you blame all the ills of the society to neoliberalism and leave it that level. It doesn’t take you anywhere. You probably become self-proclaimed revolutionaries, but you don’t bring in a revolution. So that is a challenge.

Adrian: What do you think are the main challenges for the Alliance and for the Institute as well as for critical higher education in general?

Shajahan: Well, there are challenges. But I think opportunity quite often out weights the challenges. That is what I feel. The reason I’m saying this is that when you talk about having a situation where learning creates opportunities for people to engage, in a kind of privatized education with certain kind of standards, which I was talking about in my introductory address to the conferences. There you have all kind of world university rankings which when you look at it, you don’t find the learner there, you don’t find the people there, who is the education for.

Another question for me is, what is the significant role the society has in the entire scheme of things in higher education? I think we will be able to make changes. You need to have institutions promoting nuclear physics, but alongside these technological solutions, you also need human solutions. How do we promote this in different universities? Are we going to be able to influence large number of universities?

Adrian: So I would think that it would be good for other universities to also include this human knowledge production. Are we not seeing that everything is being separated from each other? I think that’s a kind of alienation, if I can use a term from philosophy describe this phenomenon.

Shajahan: Technological universities and technology education should be technology only, there could be various ways in which humaneness can come in into these educations. But somewhere I think what we are going to do: I think that we have to look at education as a broader theme, around which the conference and the Critical Edge Alliance is going to work on. And within that: How do we bring this humaneness properly in form of a larger academic community.

I think universities should have that social connection, be it technological, or in form of other universities. So more universities are coming in conferences or becoming part of the Critical Edge Alliance, it will be more useful for us to have a much more socially relevant higher education coming into the globe.

Shreya and Adrian: For many of our students here in the magazine we have been discussing; Why do we use the term critical? In the eyes of an outside audience, isn’t the term critical something which would mean something negative?

Shajahan: Our understanding is this: We had a long discussion about what could be the name of this alliance in Morocco, when we met for the first time. We were talking about the three pillars of this alliance- Innovations, Student Centered Learning, and University-Society Partnerships.

So this gives an edge, this can edge for a university to impact the society, impact the system, impact the learning processes. We thought Critical Edge Alliance is signifying that importance of higher education being significantly contributing to a change process which is in a way more empowering, more creating a dialogic space in the university system around.

Being critical is about posing significant challenges to oppressive systems and at the same time finding ways to strengthen and empower people.

I understand this problem of using the word critical today. The word critical is being assigned a very negative connotation in today’s world; but when Paulo Freire used the concept critical consciousness, it was an empowering kind of system which transformed educational pedagogy and approaches to education itself. We never thought that Paulo Freire could be having a negative impact on education or in for that matter any of the developments and thinking.

But critique and being critical when it is hollow, can be dangerous. Being critical can be substantive, it should be substantive. The substantive aspect of critical comes in with action, with engagement, and with contributions, so a student who is graduating from these institutions should understand that they have a responsibility, not for their own profit making or you know earnings, but also to the society with whom you are working. Be it in the field of technical education, be it whatever field you are having. Ultimately, it should lead to nation building process, it should lead to a proper development of the society. We look at education as something which is empowering, something contributing to the society, to improve conditions of people and not for just those who are having the education themselves.

I will tell of this very small example from this Institute: We have a program called livelihood and social entrepreneurship. When we’re talking about entrepreneurship, quite often many other institutions which offer a social entrepreneurship program creates graduates who can become entrepreneurs. They might have a good social value and things like that. In social entrepreneurship one of the critical aspect is social value.

But when we talked about our Livelihood and Social Entrepreneurship Program, we were sure that this program will make people entrepreneurs. And that means; not the person who is studying here. You can be an entrepreneur, but the students will be given skills and probably they will be given opportunity to develop skills in making people entrepreneurs. Thereby they become change agents and not you yourself.

Shreya and Adrian: Thank you very much.

Shreya and Adrian are both members of the Critical Edges magazine, they participated in the 3rd International CEA Conference in 2017 in Mumbai. Shreya is now a standing member of the Editorial Board, representing the TISS students as well as the magazine, she was also present at the Conference in Bogota 2018.

Cover photograph by Bhupendra Pratap Singh

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